Two young Birmingham women have revealed how they were “just days away from death” when they were struck down with leukaemia.
Both were told they had the killer disease but thanks to the NHS and modern medicine, survived. They are now backing a new campaign to help people spot the signs of blood cancer.
Across the West Midlands around 740 people are diagnosed with leukaemia every year. September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month and national charity Leukaemia Care has launched its Spot Leukaemia campaign to make people aware of everyday ailments which could be a symptom of the disease.
Sarah Hollender from Great Barr was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) at the age of 37.
The mum-of-two visited her doctor after a month of tiredness which saw her going to bed every night at 8pm and suffering breathlessness.
But it was a blood test her GP carried out to find out why she was having chronic irregular heavy periods that diagnosed leukaemia. He rang Sarah late at night and urged her to go to hospital immediately.
Sarah said: “‘On admission to Heartlands hospital, the doctors couldn’t believe I was still standing and believed I was days away from death.
“I immediately had to have two blood transfusions – it was all a bit of a blur. The type of AML I had gave me a poor prognosis.
“I fell into a bit of a depression and longed to go home. I kept the curtains around my bed closed and deterred visitors.”
Initially Sarah’s treatment wasn’t a success and she was told her only chance of survival was a stem cell transplant. Fortunately, her brother was a match and in December 2018 Sarah had the transplant.
Following that, Sarah was extremely ill and contracted fungal pneumonia and numerous bacterial infections.
She was also vomiting so much from the chemotherapy she burst blood vessels in her eyes and suffered a deep vein thrombosis. She also had ulcers and inflammation in her throat, which left her unable to speak or swallow, and she lost her fingernails and her hair.
But incredibly, Sarah pulled through and is now in remission and back at work.
“As bad it was at the time, I look back now and feel so lucky. All the staff were all absolutely amazing, and really gave me the best possible treatment,” she said.
“I never doubted that I was in great hands. My husband and friends, family and work colleagues were all amazing. I was shocked how everyone pulled together for me.
“The little things meant so much: having a friend to hold my hand as they shaved my head, my coffees and cakes, friends of friends sent small gifts and I had messages of support from people I hadn’t seen for years. It all meant so much.”
During the pandemic, because of her health conditions she was in the extremely vulnerable group and had to shield during lockdown.
She said she was backing the Spot Leukaemia campaign because she had initially dismissed her symptoms as “minor ailments”.
“Individually, my symptoms started as fairly minor ailments and I just didn’t connect them together. It wasn’t until they got so bad that I thought they could be related to something serious,” she said.
“My symptoms were so classic of leukaemia, I think if I had been aware my diagnosis would have been earlier.”
Another survivor who at first dismissed her symptoms is student Sophie Wheldon from Chelmsley Wood.
She was just 20 when she started to experience headaches and neck pain. Because of her age, doctors initially suspected meningitis, so it came as a shock when Sophie was diagnosed with B-Cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
She underwent chemotherapy and was then told her only hope of a cure was a stem cell transplant.
Sophie says: “‘It was the worst time of my life. I was in so much pain and was ill all the time. It was horrible.”
But despite receiving the transplant, Sophie’s leukaemia returned and doctors gave her the shock news that she was terminally ill.
However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Sophie when doctors gave her “one last option”.
Sophie, now aged 21, became the first person in the West Midlands to have a new ground-breaking treatment called Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell therapy, or CAR-T for short.
It was a complete success and Sophie is in remission, although still living with the long term effects of her leukaemia.
“I still experience side effects from treatment to this day, including weakness, chemo brain, fatigue and immunosuppression,” she said.
“I went back to university and I have just finished my final year of my undergraduate degree, and I am going back in October to do a masters in haematology to help others like me in the future.”
What are the six most common symptoms of leukaemia:
- Fatigue (Feeling unusually tired)
- Bruising or bleeding
- Bone or joint pain
- Fever or night sweats
- Sleeping problems
- Feeling breathless
Zack Pemberton-Whiteley, from Leukaemia Care said, “Leukaemia is a blood cancer, affecting people of all ages, but it can be difficult to spot. The #SpotLeukaemia campaign seeks to empower members of the public to be able to talk to GP about their suspicions.
“Almost 10,000 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with a leukaemia, but the vast majority of these are diagnosed in an emergency setting, such as A&E.
“If you have more than one of the common symptoms, contact your GP and request a blood test.”
More information on the Spot Leukaemia campaign can be found at SpotLeukaemia.org.uk